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Vance’s Saga

Jack Vance is dead.

Ninety-six years old–he didn’t live to see the Earth die, but that’s still a hell of a run.

I only recently became a fan of Jack Vance’s, because I’m a bit of an idiot, but Vance’s work has been a huge influence on my own work anyway. How’s that, you say?

I was 10 or 11 when I made the transition from the Children’s Fiction area of the library up to the much larger Grown Ups’ area. I started with Leslie Charteris’ Saint novels, which I think was my parents’ idea, and  I just went from there. But it was the SF/Fantasy section that held the greatest allure for me. In Children’s Fiction all of the genres were co-mingled, but here in the big room most of the material I liked best was jammed together into a couple of racks.

I set about working my way through that section. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Brin, Spinrad, Le Guin, Zelazny. I had no idea which writers came from which generation. I was reading mostly science fiction then but some of those authors wrote fantasy as well and I didn’t consciously discriminate.  Over the next couple of years I went through that section like a swarm of locusts.

But there were a couple of books that I couldn’t quite digest. They fascinated me, but I just wasn’t old enough to really understand them: SOLDER OF THE MIST, by Gene Wolfe, and CUGEL’S SAGA, by Jack Vance. I’m sure 11-year-old Jason’s understanding of the other books I was reading was fairly superficial, but these two stood out as puzzlers to me.

I was aware that CUGEL’S SAGA was part of a bigger work–it’s the third part of Vance’s famous Dying Earth series, of which the middle two books are built around the character of Cugel–but that didn’t phase me. I had read most of Zelazny’s Amber cycle all out of order and it was already a favourite. It wasn’t continuity that bothered me, it was… everything else. The tone, the prose, the rampant weirdness… but mainly, it was the behaviour of the hero. Cugel is, of course, clever, but he’s not very intelligent. He’s also vainglorious, selfish, dishonourable and utterly lacking in conscience. While the book itself is structured around Cugel’s return home to vengeance, most of the adventures he undertakes in the doing of this  result in some scheme of his backfiring horribly. Every episode sees Cugel doing something reprehensible to save his own skin and fleeing for his life. This was not the sort of heroic figure I expected to read about in fantasy fiction.

I decided that Vance wasn’t for me and I went off and read a big stack of more conventional fantasy novels, but once I got beyond Zelazny and Le Guin I found that none of them satisfied me and I soon found myself increasingly drawn to the Horror section instead: I was becoming increasingly more interested in the villains of the books I was reading and that seemed more natural to the horror genre… but I think this curiosity was first piqued by Cugel’s Saga. A few years ago Jason Fischer told me that one of my stories reminded him of Vance’ work, and I suddenlyrecalled my first experience of it. Damn if it didn’t sound like the kind of book I’ve grown to love.  I bought the Dying Earth omnibus and immediately read it cover to cover.


Not only has this book proven to be a key to the books that have directly influenced me, but I’ve noticed a number of features of my own work that are mirrored in Vance’s approach. Some of it is me working at aspects of CUGEL’S SAGA that I had trouble digesting at the time. Reading CUGEL’S SAGA in context is a very different experience from reading it in isolation,  dimensions to the story. When I had finished the first two books for the first time and I started on the third book for the second time–twenty years later–I found one of the funniest literary jokes on the very first page.  This joke actually gives the story its structure, but it’s not obvious unless you’ve read the receding book. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t like spoilers:

And there it was. All of the clever-dick stuff I thought I was inferring from my favourite writers is stuff that they in their own day got from Jack Vance.

Do yourself a favour–go read some of his work. Or better still, steal someone else’s copy.




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